Since the first century people have developed various explanations (myths) to explain away the historical credibility of the empty tomb on that first Easter morning. These theories, or myths, include:
1. The Swoon Theory
Jesus didn’t really die, but only swooned and then recovered in the cool tomb.
2. The No Burial Theory
Jesus wasn’t really buried but placed in a common grave and his body was later recovered.
3. The Hallucination Theory
Scores, if not hundreds, of people thought they saw him in his resurrected state but they all hallucinated.
4. The Telepathy Theory
People had mental images of the Christ but he did not really arise.
5. The Seance Theory
People experienced an incorporeal and ephemeral appearance but not a bodily resurrection.
6. The Mistaken Identity Theory
Someone besides Jesus appeared impersonating him.
But none of these can explain how cowards became heroes, or how the early church could prosper and grow and the ancient world be eventually turned upside down by the story of a resurrected messiah.
What really happened to Jesus’ body?
The best answer non-Christians have offered is the same one offered by the Jewish authorities in the first century. It is recorded for us in Matthew 28:11-15. We can call it "The Theft Theory." Jesus’ body was stolen and thus the resurrection was really a hoax.
In the end this theory is itself plainly a myth since the true Jewish leaders among the Sanhedrin could have produced a body and proven the hoax had they desired to prove their point. Further, the basic idea itself is severely flawed because these men (and women) who would have stolen Jesus’ body were in no state of mind to pull this off. They were filled with fear, scattered quite widely and completely doubtful. And how improbable it would have been for all the Roman guards to have slept through an event of such major proportions. And their story, cooked up on the basis of politics and a bride, is rooted in the claim that they slept through all these events.
No, He is risen! He is risen indeed. Our faith is grounded in the testimony not only of the witnesses but in the sure experience of how we expect normal people to respond if Jesus had really risen. It not only takes faith not to believe the biblical account it takes a considerable bias against all common sense and human behavior as we know it.
This is the triumphant day of the Church. We must and will always come back here to root everything we preach and believe in the real stuff of human history.
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I’m glad to find others exploring the options for the development of this important and life changing story. I share your excitement, but I think you have left off the most likely option.
Right or wrong, the most probably answer is that the story of resurrection is itself a myth produced well after the event of Jesus’ death. Not just any myth, but a product of the ancient art of Jewish Midrash. These people were wonderful story tellers. They were able to weave the meanings of life into wonderful stories. I think the important thing to understand from this story is not “if” it literally happened, but “what” the story tellers mean to convey. Jesus is risen! Jesus lives and his new body is the collection of followers knows as Chrsitians. He lives within our hearts.
This question was settled long ago. There is no Midrash on this issue.
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. 15 Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; 17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. 20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.
How exactly does that settle the question? It simple settles what one person (either Paul or someone writing in Paul’s name) thought about resurrection. I think this passage proves 2 things:
1) the author has an ancient world view that includes resurrection as a possiblity
2) that some early christians did NOT believe that Jesus had been literally raised. Hense the need for the authors assertion that he had been. It points to a lack of concensus on the issue.
I agree with both those points of exegesis but I don’t see where it settles anything about excluding midrash.
Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?
Most scholars agree that, even though there is interdependence between much of the gospel accounts, the appearance accounts are independent of one another. The evidence from 5 independent historical sources indicates that on 12 separate occasions various individuals and groups in various locations and circumstances saw Jesus alive after his death.6 The four gospels tell us about appearances to:
1. Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-17)
2. The women returning from the tomb (Matt 28:9-10)
3. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35)
4. Peter (Luke 24:34; cf. I Cor 15:5)
5. The disciples with Thomas absent (Luke 24:33, 36-43; John 20:19-23; cf. I Cor 15:5)
6. The disciples with Thomas present a week later (John 20:26-29)
7. The seven disciples at the Lake of Tiberius in Galilee (John 21:1-22)
8. The eleven and others on a mountain in Galilee (Matt 28:16-20)
9. The disciples at the ascension (Luke 24:50-52; Acts 1:6-11; cf. I Cor 15:7)
Paul, besides repeating the appearances to Peter, the twelve and to all the apostles (probably the larger group of followers on the mountain in Galilee), also mentions appearances to James, Saul (himself), and to over 500 people at one time. (I Cor 15:5-8)
Paul’s accounts of the appearances are likely not legendary because of his listing of this appearance to more than 500 people. Paul is using the accepted method of his day to prove a historical event: the appeal to witnesses. He specifically states that most of these people are still alive, thereby inviting cross-examination of his witnesses. He would not likely have done this unless these were real people who would back up his claims.
The gospel accounts of the appearances are more likely historical than legendary. The legend theory rests heavily on the premise that the gospels were written after AD 70. But even the liberal critic John A.T. Robinson challenges this late dating as largely the result of scholarly laziness, unexamined presuppositions and almost wilful blindness on the part of critics. In fact, a growing number of scholars would argue for dating at least Acts, Luke, Mark and Matthew before AD 70. One of the reasons is that Acts makes no mention of known historical events which took place between AD 60-70, such as the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70), the persecution of Christians by Nero (AD 64), the death of James (AD 62) and the death of Paul (AD 64). The best explanation for these significant events going unmentioned by the writer Luke is that they hadn’t yet occurred when Acts was completed. Hence, Acts was likely written before AD 62-64, and the Gospel of Luke, being part one of Luke’s writings was even earlier, possibly AD 57-62. Most scholars believe Mark was one of Luke’s sources, so it would be earlier still, somewhere between AD 45-56.
Two full generations
(50-80 years) are not
long enough for legend
to wipe out the hard
core of historical fact.
This pushes the gospel accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus to within 15-32 years after the events or roughly one generation. More importantly, these gospels are based on earlier written and oral sources that are dated much closer to the events. Those sources contain sayings, statements, and hymns that are highly Semitic and translate nicely from Greek (in which they are written) back into Aramaic (the language Jesus and the disciples spoke). That points to an early Jerusalem origin, within the first few years and weeks after Christ’s death! There was simply not enough time for the basic set of facts to be replaced by legend or myth.
Professor A.N. Sherwin White, an eminent historian of Roman and Greek history, has studied the rate at which myths were formed in the ancient Near East. He chides New Testament critics for not recognizing the quality of the New Testament documents compared to the sources he must work with in Roman and Greek history. Those sources are usually removed from the events they describe by generations or even centuries. Despite when they were written though and the typically biased approach of the writers, he says historians can confidently reconstruct what actually happened.
In stark contrast, Professor Sherwin-White tells us that for the gospels to be legendary, more generations would have been needed between the events and their compilation. He has found that even the span of two full generations (50-80 years) is not long enough for legend to wipe out the hard core of historical fact.7 Even the late dating of the gospels meets that criteria, let alone the early dating! In addition, there is no example in history where legendary stories supplanted the historical core in the same geographical location in less than two generations. The legends about Jesus the critics are looking for do exist, but they arose in the second century – consistent with the two-generation time frame discovered by Professor Sherwin-White – when all the eyewitnesses had died off. Thus, the trust-worthiness of the gospel accounts is highly probable because there just wasn’t enough time for mythical tendencies to creep in and prevail over historical fact.
The fact that women
are listed as the first
witnesses of the empty
tomb and of the
powerful credibility to
The fact that women, and not the male disciples, are listed as the first witnesses of the appearances and the empty tomb also lends powerful credibility to these incidents. Women were of such low status in first-century Jewish society that their testimony in court was considered worthless. It would have been purposeless, even counter-productive, to the credibility of the story in that culture to record the incidents in this manner if it were not the way it actually happened.
In addition, the gospels are not written in a legendary style. The style of the gospels lacks the legendary embellishments that are clearly part of the later writings. C.S. Lewis, one of the great literary experts on ancient myths, commenting on the gospels, writes, “I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends, myths all my life. I know that not one of [the gospels] is like this.”8
Moreover, where external verification is possible the New Testament has demonstrated reliability, thus supporting its credibility. In 1961 there was the discovery of inscription referring to Pilate in Caesarea during the time of Tiberius. There was the discovery of an ossuary (bone-box) of a crucified man from first century Palestine confirming the practice of driving nails into ankles. In 1992 the burial grounds of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest were found. We have the discoveries of the pool of Bethesda, the pool of Siloam, Jacob’s well, the GABBATHA (pavement) where Pilate pronounced judgment on Jesus. The book of Acts had been shown to be full of reliable historical information.9
As R.T. France, the British New Testament scholar reasons, “Again and again, where it is possible to check their accounts against `hard’ external data, they are found to ring true. Where no such external check is available… it therefore seems responsible to treat their record as factual rather than imaginary.”10
Another New Testament scholar, Craig Blomberg, argues that, “as investigation proceeds, the evidence becomes sufficient for one to declare that what can be checked is accurate, so that it is entirely proper to believe that what cannot be checked is probably accurate as well. Other conclusions, widespread though they are, seem not to stem from evenhanded historical analysis but from religious or philosophical prejudice.”11
It is hard to deny on historical grounds that numerous people had experiences that they interpreted as appearances of the risen Jesus. Some suggest that these incidents are not to be understood as physical, bodily appearances, but merely as visions or hallucinations. They argue that Paul refers to the resurrection body as a “spiritual body” and that the physicalism of the gospel appearances is an anti-Gnostic12 apologetic.
Some contend that Paul’s experience of the risen Christ was a mere vision, and that since Paul adds his experience to the list in I Cor. 15, they all must have been non-physical visions. But Paul’s experience involved extra-mental phenomena. It did not all happen in the mind of Paul. This is in stark contrast to the vision Stephen had in Acts 7. Stephen’s experience was purely subjective; no one else saw or heard anything. But in Paul’s experience, his companions heard sound and saw light. We know that some people were suspicious of Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord, so he was adding his experience to the list of other appearances in order to raise his experience up to the level of objectivity the others were known for, not to drag those others down to some non-physical, subjective level.